Teaching theater to those who have forgotten what its like to play

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Flashback Theater Co. | Let’s Play! February 2016

I see a lot of reluctance in younger people to test the waters of creativity. Without step by step instruction, they are frozen by the inability to carry on. In theater, you must be willing to try new things. You cannot rely on how something has been done before. Collaboration is reliant on everyone taking risks and expanding their creativity. And theater is a highly collaborative activity.

In my mind, Let’s Play! fights the urge of our newest generation to only do what is already expected. It heightens the need to think on the spot and deliver a creative product because it is being performed in front of an audience in real time. There is no rehearsal, no plan to make sure everyone knows what to expect. Participants quickly learn the “Yes and…” rule because there is no safety net.

Hosting Let’s Play! one night a month doesn’t seem sufficient for combatting the underlying issue though. Just last week, I was talking with a mom who said she knew a child who was punished for failing the CATS arts test by taking away access to the very resources that would improv the score. Recess turned into practice testing for this child, and they were banned from the “extracurricular” classes including (you guessed it) music and art.

Having worked with a couple of high school aged students who have been conditioned to think in the testing mindset, I have no doubt it is one of the factors that contribute to the need for step-by-step instruction and the inability to think creatively. Not only that, but drama is no longer seen as a worthwhile course in high school curriculum. Some schools have tried to maintain a drama program through clubs but it can hardly have the same educational effect on students as meeting on a daily basis.

My high school drama class was a lot of improv and creative thinking. It was a class I eagerly looked forward to every day. I enjoyed the challenge of it but also the freedom and empowerment to create my own stories. I convinced my best friend to join me and despite her reluctance to speak in front of crowds, she was able to later admit she had a lot of fun in the class as well.

So how to translate my positive theater experiences into future learning opportunities for others?

Let’s Play! was a concept I dreamt up in the middle of the night. The initial event allowed people to cast, rehearse, and perform a 10-minute play in the space of just two hours. It was open to everyone and was free to attend. About two dozen people attended – with most choosing to stay in the audience. Since then, Let’s Play! has been held with various themes in mind: Improv Games, Storytelling, Mock Auditions – but the initial thought of creating a space to come and play is still the same.

As a child, I very easily slipped into games of pretend. Whether it was “playing house” or “cops & robbers” my siblings, cousins, and friends had favorites to act out over and over again. The basic concept of playing house might have stayed the same but the variations of storytelling kept us entertained for hours. As I grew older, I adapted theater games into party games. I distinctly remember a New Year’s Eve party as a teenager where we played improvisation games for hours. (I might add this party was at the house of the aforementioned best friend who reluctantly admitted loving the drama class.)

My desire to create Let’s Play! stemmed from those memories of play-acting and improv games. But what once came very naturally to me as a child now needs constant effort to keep the storytelling juices flowing. And I think its the same for many others. Where there are a few that can jump up and deliver a one-liner with perfect comedic timing – some of those who come to Let’s Play! opt out of the acting part entirely. The most successful Let’s Play! to date has been Storytelling, where stories are read from books and acted out. I believe it is successful because it gives participants a bit of a crutch to lean on – but there is still plenty of room for creativity!

Practice makes perfect – so over time actors who return to Let’s Play! on a regular basis  get better at improvising and storytelling. After about a dozen Let’s Play! events, I can see more confidence in one of the actors who initially waited for suggestions from stagemates.  I believe Let’s Play! has proven that you can teach theater to those who forgot how to play – it just takes consistent reassurance and practice.

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Programming a mission-centric season of productions

Earlier in the summer, I was brainstorming ideas for blog posts and a dear friend suggested I do a post on season planning. I thought it was a great idea and drafted the post but thought I would hold off since I had already gone through the season announcement for the current season. But now I am beginning to consider Flashback’s next season and, conveniently, Howlround started a series on season planning so now seems like a great time to publish. The Howlround series is really fascinating and has Artistic Directors from all over the country in the line-up so be sure to check it out!

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Each year, regional theaters all over the country announce their upcoming year of productions (usually in the spring or early summer). This year I got to join the tradition with Flashback Theater Co. and I couldn’t be more excited for the current season. The funny thing is: I did not realize how much time and work goes into scheduling a season in advance until I went through it. Here is how I did it:

1. Set the logistical requirements for the season. There were several questions that had to be answered to give me an idea of the shape of the season.

  • How many shows does the board want to program? I offered my board some options for when we could produce shows, and they decided to produce 4 plays over the next year. The one at the end of this summer is technically in the current season so in the future, our seasons will include 3 shows (if we follow the same schedule). In addition, my board and I decided to fill in the rest of the months of the year with our free event, Let’s Play!, but I won’t go into detail about that here.
  • How many cast members will I be looking for? Thinking about the available performance spaces over the next year and the budget constraints I would be under for the purposes of hiring performing artists, I knew the casts had to stay small. At the same time, Last Train to Nibroc was recent enough to remind me that 2 person shows are tough and having minor characters can help keep things on track.
  • Likewise, what design limitations will we be under? Space and budgetary constraints come into play here as well, although not as much considering you can do practically any show with stools, a table, and a few hand props. My audience in particular expects some degree of reality in sets and costumes so I had to keep that in mind.
  • What seasonal considerations should we take into account? I made sure to look at the holidays happening around the same time as our desired show dates to see if we could tie into anything specifically. Christmas is the big one that everyone programs for but Valentine’s Day is a date opportunity so something a little more romantic in that time period wouldn’t be amiss. Besides holidays, I wanted to keep in mind the season of a play’s setting so I could schedule it during a time when audiences (or actors!) wouldn’t feel disjointed.

2. Set the mission requirements of the season. How will I articulate our mission through the shows we produce? This is the most important requirement of all because this is how I (as the artistic director) tell the community why Flashback Theater Co. is important. (Staying true to the mission is also necessary for maintaining status as a 501(c)3, so that’s an added bonus…and is surprisingly overlooked by some organizations during their programming.)

Flashback Theater Co. Mission

The mission talks about our past and present as a community and our world but also about theater that speaks to the soul, so there is a lot of room for programming. I definitely wanted a play that was tied into the local community: either by a local playwright or about a local event or person. I also kept thinking about our role in educating the community about theater – so I was looking for a play that would give the audience some perspective of the process of theater and its production. Finally, I wanted to make sure we addressed “the world” part of the mission by choosing a play that was set somewhere outside of the US.

3. Decide which scripts I wanted to order and look at. Knowing what to look for did not make finding potential plays easier, but it saved me from reading scripts that were definitely not going to work, so in the end it was worth it. This was the most tedious part of the process, because it was a lot of searching through play catalogs online, and learning how each site worked and where to look on each for information like cast and set requirements.

(I must say the site with the best search options and user-friendly interface was playscripts.com. They also allow you to download a pretty lengthy preview of most scripts which is really helpful, since descriptions and character lists can only go so far. Reading the first scene can go a long way to knowing whether the play is a possibility or not and I appreciated that I was saved from purchasing a few scripts that were definitely not going to work.)

4. Put plays into the scheduled slots. I would choose a couple of scripts to order, wait for them to come in, read them, and decide if they were a possibility. If one was a yes or maybe, I would write the title on a post-it note and place it in a schedule grid on a sheet of paper. This let me move things around as I filled in the blanks, and has given me a bit of a start on the next season too, since there were some shows I liked that didn’t fit into the current lineup.

5. Inquire about & obtain performance rights for selected dates. Once I had my ideal line up I had to contact each licensing company (with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, which is in the public domain) to ask if the rights were available for our area on our dates. I didn’t anticipate this being an issue because the shows I chose are not the big popular favorites, and it wasn’t.

6. Plan budgets for the desired season and get approval from the board. Knowing the desired titles were available for performance opens the way for building a complete budget for each show. This is also the basis for the organization’s operating budget for the upcoming year – so it is a vital part of getting the board’s approval. I can’t program a full season of shows that I expect to lose money, but I can justify programming a show that will likely lose money if it is strongly tied to our mission. This season, that’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. It ties beautifully into the “exploring theater” part of our mission but is a new play that the Somerset audience is going to be challenged by. Again – that’s part of our mission so I didn’t back down from programming it. My board was very trusting of my programming decisions for this year. After we experience the results of the risks I took in this season, I think their feedback for next season will have more direction. And that’s just part of starting a theater company in a city that hasn’t had a lot of non-traditional theater before.

7. Announce the season! After all the work of researching, budgeting, and deciding, the best part is actually announcing the season. I did this at a special Let’s Play! with a slate of performers doing monologues and vocal selections from Broadway numbers. This stayed true to the spirit of Let’s Play! and our mission and was met with positive reactions from my audience.

There are about a hundred little steps to make up each of the above steps. For me, these were the major milestones. The mission has served as the perfect guiding light for our season, and will allow us to continue talking about our mission throughout the year in the context of each show. That is what I consider a programming success. Now…to do it all again!

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Are you a playwright with a script that fits Flashback Theater’s mission? Email me with a synopsis and list of characters. I am always looking for Kentucky based plays to read.

Top 3 reasons performing artists should be paid

Street performer waits for change

I used to be very involved in community theater. I loved it! It was awesome! I had so much fun twice a week…for three months of rehearsal. So you can imagine my surprise when I got to college and suddenly rehearsals occurred every night for three to four weeks straight! Suddenly, it was a job. Everyone was held responsible for being at rehearsal, on time, every night they were scheduled. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Going straight from a day of classes to a night of rehearsal, then repeating everyday for three weeks – it was hard to imagine anyone could ever choose that life permanently. Throw in the fact that you may not even be paid a decent wage – and I was O U T. That was when I decided acting was not for me! But now I am founding a company, and I want to make it very clear why I firmly believe actors (and all performing artists) should be paid for their work.

Reason #1: Performing artists do not typically hold standard “9-5” day jobs.

Since my initial induction into the world of fast-paced production schedules, I have experienced several rehearsal processes. My time spent shadowing rehearsals at Know Theatre of Cincinnati and The Carnegie in Covington, Kentucky was primarily at night, while rehearsals at Arena Stage typically began in the afternoon, and the ensemble at Cincy Shakes rehearses during the day and performs at night.  The biggest difference? The size of the organization. Arena can pay actors enough to make it a “day job.” (At least until the performances.) Shakes uses the ensemble model so they can have the same actors contracted throughout the season as full-time workers, freeing them up to rehearse during the day. Know Theatre and The Carnegie, on the other hand, have a pay scale that only supplements whatever other income the actor has. Many performing artists (in Cincinnati, at least, which has been the bulk of my experience) cobble together a variety of jobs to make rent: teaching, waiting on tables, receptionist work, and baking seem to be very common. Usually, these ventures are unreliable for a predictable income, so every paying performance job they can book is a sigh of relief – and gives them a little security cushion.

Reason #2: Performing artists have to hone their craft, even when they aren’t being paid.

Without consistent work, performing artists become…shall we say…rusty? This is especially true for musicians, as they must constantly practice to maintain the flexibility, strength, and agility to play their instrument. So – even if they don’t get a gig for a month – they still need to practice several hours a week to maintain the quality of their work for when they DO get a gig. I like Cincy Shakes’ ensemble model for this very reason – the acting company members are always honing their craft because it is their full-time job, and it shows onstage. The actors at Shakes always do a remarkable job. They could do an entire performance in paper sacks with no set design whatsoever and put on a captivating performance in which you wouldn’t even notice the bizarre costumes and lack of set.

Reason #3: Performing artists put their heart and soul on the line for every performance.

We, as humans, look for ways to relate to each other. No technology will be able to replace the feeling of having a shared, in-person experience with dozens of other people. If you don’t believe me, just think about the difference of seeing nudity in a film vs. seeing it onstage. Many people don’t think twice about seeing a film rated R with a nude scene – but if its a live performance, the same people balk. I’m certainly not advocating for or against nudity on stage but you as an audience member realize there is a certain level of intimacy involved when you know that person is really there, in front of you, living out a story. Often, movie stars don’t even know the final plot line of the film they are working on until they see the premiere. So much work happens after their job is done that stories can change drastically. This is not so with a live performer. Every night, the same story is lived out. And it is the performer’s job to tell it – without the safety nets of editing and dubbing to fix their mistakes.

When you go to a performance, the artists are providing you a service. You are being reminded of your humanity, challenged to acknowledge why you think, speak, and behave the way you do. You may be entertained during the process but if you talk to any performing artist, they will tell you that they perform to make people feel, not just to entertain. It is that human connection we buy tickets for – and is the reason we should pay our performing artists enough to focus on their art and continually challenge our expectations of the world.

My Vision

So you’ve heard the what and the why. Now I’d like to tell you how.

The company I am founding will begin with a small festival and a large amount of passion. It is my intent to give you, the audience, the theatrical experience described in my last post of this series, binding us together as a community. I want to tell stories that are truthful and insightful, while staying true to our identity as the Lake Cumberland region.

Flashback Theater Co. MissionYou may be wondering why “Co.” and not “Company”. This theater will be more than just a company. It will be Collaborative. It will be a Community, a Cooperative, a Conversation.

Let’s give people in our community the chance to choose theater as a profession in the long-term, without the fear of never having something to eat. Let’s get friends and neighbors excited about seeing live theater on a regular basis. Let’s stimulate conversations and build our community’s relationships. I hope you are as excited about this as I am, because without you it can’t be done.

Today marks the start of our crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo for our first ever production, coming in February 2015. If you are excited about having a theater company in Somerset, Kentucky, please visit the Indiegogo campaign page to learn more about how you can help  Flashback Theater Co. reach its goal of raising $3,500 in three weeks.

 


In case you missed it:

Part I: Getting there – how I prepared to start a theater company
Part II: Why a theater company?

 

Aside

My crazy late night idea

Have you ever woken up with an idea that you can’t get out of your head? It happened to me at 1 am this morning.

A crazy idea for a flash play festival

It has been my intention to create a production for FbTC in the spring (that’s Flashback Theater Co. for those of you who haven’t been paying attention the past couple of weeks). However, I have been so encouraged by everyone who has shown their support on Facebook that I cannot contain myself any longer! I want to meet everyone who has made the effort to follow the company’s page – what better way than through creating theater together?

Here’s the idea: a 10 minute play festival, put together in just one and a half hours! I have no idea if it will work or not but I think it will be so much fun to try. If you want to take part, check out the Facebook event page here.

Each play will get a director and actors by luck of the draw when you arrive. Rehearsal time of one hour will begin shortly afterwards – when time is up we will watch everyone’s play. Obviously, no one is going to memorize a script in that amount of time, and this isn’t about getting a flawless piece onstage so I am sure everyone will have their script in hand or nearby. It is designed to give you the excuse to take chances and make strong choices because if it flops, well – everyone knows it was rehearsed in only an hour!

This is crazy enough it just might work!


For those of you who have been following the series about why I started FbTC: it will continue soon. This idea was so immediate that I wanted to get it out there first. So don’t worry, you’ll get Part III soon.

 

5 Reasons to Make Seeing Art a Habit

art should be a habit

I love theater. I try to see a play or musical at least once every month. If I could afford it, I’d go every week! The first year of grad school, I didn’t go at all. By the end of that year, I was questioning why I was getting a degree in Arts Administration…but then I worked at Arena Stage for a summer and saw a few productions while I was in D.C. Suddenly I remembered how passionate I am about theater, and committed  to seeing something – anything – every few weeks to keep that passion alive.

Not everyone is as passionate about an art form as I am about theater, and that’s okay. But here are a few reasons to encourage you to make seeing art a regular part of your life.

5. To challenge yourself.
Art often asks questions we have never asked ourselves. Finding your answer to challenging questions makes you grow as a citizen of the world. It helps you see issues you may have ignored or just never even knew existed. There was an Edinburgh Fringe show a few years ago about human trafficking. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it but the concept was really amazing: The show started at a street corner. The audience would load up in a van and ride with an actor playing the part of a recently abducted woman who would be sold as a prostitute. The van took them to a warehouse, where the woman was abused and kept prisoner. The audience had no choice but to follow the story as they were now a part of it themselves. You can bet the audience never forgot the feeling of being in that van, not knowing where they were going or how long they would be there. Suddenly, human trafficking is real to them and not something they can easily ignore.

4. To open a dialogue with others.
Art is an easy topic to talk about with a stranger. You can compare what you see or hear with what they see or hear, and it can help you make new connections with the people around you. Yesterday I was waiting for my carry out order at a restaurant and another customer stopped and asked me why I looked so tired. This led to a conversation about how much he loves classical music and the symphonies he has attended because I told him I work for the conservatory. He immediately felt connected to me because he loves art and my job is to make art happen.

3. To commit ourselves to an in-person experience.
How often do we stop to experience a moment? It gets harder and harder with each new technology that comes along. Buying a ticket to an arts event – a play or an exhibit or a symphony concert- commits us to being in that moment. Investing in something with our hard-earned money makes us value and prioritize it.  It would be silly to buy a ticket to an exhibit and then sit on a bench answering messages the entire time. You can do that for free without spending cash on a ticket!

2. To give us a topic to post, text, or talk about later.
Taking a break from internet, texting, and emailing helps me to remember what life is about: experiences. Yes, it is great that I can stay connected to people who live far away but I honestly can’t remember what my last Facebook post was about ….and what’s the point of talking to people if you have no new experiences to talk about? (And it won’t hurt my feelings if your excitement for an exhibit encourages new people to come to the next one! 😉 )

1. To see amazing art.
I am constantly in search of the theater piece that takes my breath away. There is nothing quite like it. I go to see theater because I don’t want to miss the next production that leaves me speechless. Ensemble Theater Company’s Next to Normal, the Broadway tour of The Phantom of the Opera, a production of Bye Bye Birdie my college produced. These are part of a collection of memorable experiences that I will always strive to add to. If I weren’t in the habit of going to theater, I would have missed these. For every show that stands out there are 10 shows that don’t. But seeing the not-so-great shows is so worth it when you find a masterpiece!

Classical Art: Entertainment or Preservation?

Ballet shoes preservation of artA couple months ago I was in a meeting about creative disruption. The conversation quickly turned into a discussion about the differences between commercial art forms and educational art forms.

One thought was that some art organizations are really “museum” type organizations, desperately trying to preserve art forms that are no longer commercially viable. With so many symphonies, opera houses, and dance companies struggling, it might appear that the support for these art forms is dying. To me, it seems that the audience just wants to experience these art forms on their own terms. Last year, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Lumenosity proved that people are willing to hear an orchestra perform. The TV show So You Think You Can Dance has been on the air for 10 years, introducing people to the powerful storytelling capabilities of dance. SYTYCD has featured tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop, contemporary, and probably 20 more styles of dance.

What is the real purpose of arts organizations today? If they are not for profit, they fall under section 501(c)3 tax code purely because they are educational, as there is no category for arts and culture. But does this mean they should be relegated to preservation purposes only? Of course not!

Should we abandon art forms such as opera, ballet, and classical music because audiences are now less interested? This is where it gets harder to answer and begins to contradict itself. So much of the art that is now popular – contemporary dance, for example, has basis in the more traditional forms. Would we have contemporary dance as we know it today without the talent that came out of classical ballet? Probably not. At this point though, students are trained in contemporary without starting in ballet. Perhaps a ballet foundation is helpful but I will leave that to a dancer to answer.

Once again, my post has become a series of questions without satisfying answers – but these are the questions plaguing the next generation of arts organizations. I like to think we are slowly finding answers – putting classic art forms into the context of today seems to be part of the answer. I have a feeling that at some point classical arts will succumb to the pressure and go the way of Latin – taught only in classrooms as a basis for understanding our current language. I certainly hope this does not happen in my lifetime though!